Daniel Solander (1733-1782)

Off the south-western corner of the South Island is Solander Island. Its name is a small reminder of this country's connection with a notable Swedish naturalist, Daniel Solander, who was a member of Joseph Banks' scientific party on Cook's first voyage.

Solander was born in 1733, son of the vicar of Piteå in Sweden. When he went to Uppsala University as a seventeen-year-old, it was to study law. His real inclination turned out to be natural history, and he switched from law to study it. His principal teacher was Carl von Linné (later known as Linnaeus), professor of natural history at Uppsala.

Linnaeus had devised a system of categorising different species, using twin Latin names to describe them. (It's the 'binomial' naming system we use to this day.) At this time, European naturalists were discovering the vast diversity of nature in their own backyards as well as in distant countries. Linnaeus' system was a vital contribution to organising a rapidly expanding knowledge of plants and animals.

Solander proved to be a gifted student. He learned Linnaeus' taxonomic system thoroughly and applied it precisely. Throughout the 1750s, he worked closely with Linnaeus, classifying species. He also made extensive field studies, particularly of plants, on his own in various parts of Sweden. By the time he left Sweden in 1760, he had already made and classified a plant collection of some 7500 specimens.

Scientists in other countries were keen to know about Linnaeus' system and apply it. In 1759, a keen plant breeder in England asked the professor to send him an 'apostle' - one of his brightest students - to catalogue his plant collection using this system, and to teach its ins and outs to other interested people. Linnaeus sent Solander.

Linnaeus saw this move as one for Solander to gain overseas experience - a step in a career that would lead to Solander succeeding him as professor of natural history in Uppsala. It was not to be. Solander settled into living in England very quickly. He liked the English and the English liked him. England became Solander's base for the rest of his life.

Within a short time, he got a job in the library of the newly established British Museum. He was later appointed as that museum's first natural historian. In 1764, he became a member of the Royal Society. In the same year, he met the wealthy young landowner and keen naturalist Joseph Banks whose influence and resources were to be a crucial part of Solander's working life.

Banks and Solander found much in common. Their friendship quickly became close and remained lifelong. It was Banks' appreciation of Solander's descriptive, categorising, and organisational skills that led to his inviting Solander in 1768 to join the south seas expedition with Cook. Cheerful, easy-going and sociable, Solander was as popular on board ship as he was in London society. He was also an adept and industrious worker.

From this epic voyage around the world, the party collected over 30,000 specimens of plants and animals, and Solander identified and described in detail some 1300 species previously unknown in western science. Some of the specimens they collected in New Zealand are now held in Te Papa's botany collection. Others are held in Auckland Museum.

On their return to England, Banks had a grand plan to publish the results of the expedition. Solander was employed to prepare the manuscripts, and to look after the collection as well as Banks' extensive library. This was interspersed with his work at the British Museum. Then, in 1782, ten years after the voyage, Solander suffered a stroke and died from its effects several days later.

None of this research was published in Solander's lifetime. But it was made available in other ways. Banks kept his house in London open as a reference centre for scientists wanting to study his collection.

Solander has become famous chiefly for his field observations and records of the plants of the south Pacific and Australia and New Zealand. These were of immense value to his scientific successors. Botanists today still admire Solander's precise, detailed, and recognisable descriptions of the species he encountered on the voyage. It took over 200 years before the work so painstakingly done during and after that voyage was published as Banks' Florilegium.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa Collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.

  • Beaglehole, J C. editor. (1962). The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768-1771. 2 vols. Sydney: Public Library of New South Wales and Angus and Robertson.
  • Hooker, Joseph D. editor. (1896). Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks Bart., KB, PRS during captain Cook's first voyage. London: Macmillian.


Portrait of Daniel Charles Solander MD
lithograph after oil painting by Johann Zoffany (about 1776)
Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, Ref. no: F31867 1/2
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